Simon was a monk who lived in the Syrian desert in the 5th century.
He built a column six feet high and lived on it for some time…but eventually was ashamed at its small height.
He found one sixty feet high, three feet across and built a railing to keep from falling off when he slept.
There on this perch Simon lived uninterruptedly for thirty-seven years…rain, sun, cold.
His disciples would climb a ladder to bring him food and to remove his waste.
There are many other examples of these kinds of extremes that Christians have gone to in search of spiritual purity…but why?
Here’s part of the backstory:
In the first three centuries of Christian history believers could not forget they were “strangers and pilgrims” on earth (Heb. 11:13-16)
They were consistently persecuted and didn’t hold any favored status in society
There was no advantage in earthly terms of being a believer…there were many disadvantages.
This all changed in 311 when the Roman emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and instantly the Christian faith had legal standing and protection and even favored status.
So Christians went from being persecuted by the government and society for faith in Christ to being rewarded for it.
This of course led to the lines between the world and the authentic Christ followers becoming blurred.
A group of believers found this situation unbearable and they sought to escape the world and it’s corruption and to live in a more “spiritual existence.”
From this situation (and other factors) sprung early monasticism…where individuals lived completely alone in the wilderness.
This proved to be a dangerous and often short lifestyle…because of animal and human predators…so these individuals eventually formed collectives called “monasteries”…where they were able to “live alone…together.”
They often did engage and impact the surrounding cultures…but it was still an attempt to escape the world, to live more pure lives…through harsh discipline.
Of course even these early monastics before they formed collectives relied on others to live in the real world for them.
For instance Simon needed people who did not live on 60-foot pillars to grow and bring him food.
In spite of this incongruence people like Simon became spiritual heroes.
They became the models of spiritual maturity.
Fast-forward about 1200 years.
A German monk living in a monastery named Martin Luther fasted for days on end, slept in the cold without cover, beat himself with a whip and almost killed himself in his attempts to live a “spiritual life.”
He did all this to escape the world of temptations out there and the world of desires “in here”…he was a miserable soul.
His discipline did not bring him joy.
Eventually he famously came to understand grace and faith…and became a leader in what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.
He understood rightly that spiritual discipline does not earn God’s favor.
Now fast forward another 500 years to today.
We understand that we are able to live a single story life…we can live in the world but not of the world, though this is often difficult to do.
We also understand that we do not have to earn our salvation and that discipline for discipline’s sake has no real value.
Paul said it like this…
Col. 2:20-23 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
So discipline for the sake of discipline has no value in changing our moral character, it does not make us different people on the inside and it earns no favor with God.
The Hollywood version (and unfortunately sometimes the real world version) of Christians who are very strict and anti-world in their habits and attitudes often prove to be people who are harboring secret sins and who are in fact merely covering these sins with their external disciplines.
The ones who are super-spiritual (very strict and disciplined)…are really super-messed up and trying to cover their mess with their shows of spiritual discipline.
The result of all this is that spiritual disciplines are seen to be non-essential at best and destructive at worst.
Church Historians have a principle they call the pendulum effect.
-The history of the church is often a multi-generational swing from one imbalance to another.
The overall effect through the centuries is something that resembles balance…but at specific times there are just degrees of imbalance.
So picture the pendulum swinging into the imbalance of Christians who looked no different from the world…after Constantine.
Then some tried to leave the world and though they were relatively few they were influential and they created a sort of two-story view of the faith…so the pendulum swung back past center.
Then some responded (like Martin Luther) rightly against this and things swung back to a more balanced approach to faith and life
But things went past center and then all things that looked like discipline were often seen as being bad and unnecessary…they were called legalism.
All you need to do in order to become like Christ is: go to church, take the sacraments, understand correct doctrine (know some stuff).
And the result is that we are at a place where is it possible to consider yourself a committed follower of Christ and yet be making no progress whatsoever in becoming like Christ in character and spiritual power and in relationships with others.
“I am going to heaven because I have put my faith in Christ, but I hold a grudge against my neighbor, harbor unfettered jealousy towards a co-worker and consistently serve self over others…and I am doing nothing to change any of it.”
*All this is admittedly over simplified…but its not untrue.
So let’s talk about what is called spiritual disciplines…things like prayer, fasting, giving, worship, solitude, sacrifice, service…and many other similar things.
What is their role in the Christian life? Worthless? Harmful? Unnecessary? Essential?
What do they do, if anything?
Recall the verse I read where Paul said “harsh treatment of the body” has no value in changing the heart.
Now listen to this, also from Paul:
1Cor. 9:24-27 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
That sounds like harsh treatment of the body…sounds like discipline.
Was Paul confused, self-contradictory?
Some would say he was, I would say he absolutely was not…his words are God-inspired and God is never confused or self-contradictory.
What we have in those two passages together is balance regarding actions and choices we can and must make in order to become like Christ.
On the one hand Paul said that discipline for its own sake is worthless.
On the other hand Paul said that discipline for the sake of growth in Christlikeness is essential.
A couple of weeks ago I used the illustration of someone who wanted to learn to play the piano or run at a high level of skill.
I said it would be irrational to believe that you could simple “wish” for that skill, hope it happens someday, and not train for it…to believe it would someday become yours.
The same is true in growth in Christlikeness.
So clearly training is necessary to become more skilled at something…but what of the goal of training? How important is it to keep this in mind?
The pianist doesn’t practice so he can practice better…he practices so he can play well.
The runner doesn’t train so she can train…she trains so she can run, compete, win races.
When a means to an end becomes the end…the means itself can become unhealthy.
Diet and exercise have as their end…or should…to maximize health.
When they become the end in themselves…then diet and exercise can become unhealthy.
-They can actually undermine health.
People have destroyed their health through physical exercise and dieting that have become and end in themselves.
So the bible does not speak against training as a means to a good end…but it speaks against doing things, like disciplines…as ends in themselves.
Or using good means to a bad end.
Money is a means to an end…Money’s “end” ideally is to have resources for your family’s life and to be able to help others.
But when money becomes an end itself…then Paul says “that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” It becomes a source of destruction.
Money’s end can become to impress others or to control them, or to life a self-serving life.
So if spiritual disciplines are means, what is the appropriate end…goal?
Man’s chief end…one well known confession of faith declares…is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
We like to say…To know and love God, to make his love known to others.
-Faith expressing itself in love.
Not to earn from God or to impress others…but to love God and to bless others.
When I was a boy I wanted to be near my dad.
-When he was working on stuff around the house I would often want to hang out and “help”
-This changed to some degree by my teen years…when I grew more selfish and lazy.
-But as a younger boy I wanted to be near him…I did some stuff that I didn’t want to do…to be with him…like help with house repairs…though I wasn’t much help.
-I was fortunate that I did not have to earn his love, I was confident and secure in it.
-So why would I do things I didn’t want to do?
-Because I wanted to be near him and to be like him.
*I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture here:
-He often had to make me do chores because most of the time I would rather play than work.
*My point is this…in my young-heart…I wanted to be near and to be like my dad.
*So…I did some of what I did…with that goal in mind.
*I understand that many of you were not as fortunate in the kind of human father you had as I was.
*But all of us together have the same heavenly father and he is not demanding that we earn his love…we can have it freely.
*However, it is necessary that in order to become like him, in order to see where he is moving and join him to be with…that we train, that we change, that we exert will and effort.
*Training for godliness(1 Tim. 4:8)…is just a way of saying…doing things to be nearer and more like God.
*Training is not earning…it is a pathway to enjoying
*Training is not effort to deserve God’s love…it is effort to experience it and express it more deeply.
The practice of disciplines such as prayer is not the goal our spiritual lives…they are means to an end.
The end is the enjoyment of and love for God and others in our normal day-to-day lives.
We do things to train ourselves…mind, body, will…to enjoy and experience the life God has for us.
So for instance we take our thoughts captive, as a spiritual discipline…in order to more consistently think God thoughts…when our brains hold his thoughts (not foolish ones)…we will simply live better lives.
*”That’s not true.”
*Of course it is…happiness, contentment, treating others well, enjoying others more…starts in good thinking.
*So the discipline of “taking thoughts captive to Christ”…is key to experiencing an enjoyable life with God and others.
We set our minds on things above so that we will live more joyful lives here below…this is part a training plan.
By training I mean doing things intentionally in order to become like Christ.
“Grace is not opposed to earning but to effort…earning is attitude, effort is action.”
Another example of a spiritual discipline as a means to an end…we serve as Christ served so that we can experience the life Christ lived.
On and on this goes.
Important: Remember that Jesus said when you exercise discipline…praying, giving, fasting…the examples he used.
-Don’t advertise…because if you do these things to get applause from others, to try and look spiritual…that is all you will get.
Others may think (wrongly I might add) you are a very spiritual person…but you will not actually be growing in Christlikeness.
So to take pride in how much we pray, or give, or read, or know, or serve…is to completely miss the point.
This is to turn means into an end.
We pursue spiritual disciplines because we want to know and love God and make his love known.
So we don’t sit on a 60 foot perch and hope it will help us not love the world.
We engage God in prayer, others in service…we memorize scripture, we give away our time, talents, treasure…we train in order that our hearts will follow our investment.
As we train…as we invest in loving God and others in real practical ways…our hearts begin to change…that is the purpose for which we train.
We must not see this as earning or a way to impress others…this is completely wrong
This is training to enjoy God and to love others.
God accepts you in Christ…his grace requires no effort…but we should want to become like Christ and this process requires full effort.
But we must not turn effort into earning…and we must not see effort as joyless, miserable, activities.
The pianist trains for the joy of playing music.
The runner trains for the joy of running the race.
We train for glory of God, the good of others, and for our own great joy.
This year we are looking at what the Scripture says about closing the gap on faith and love.
Where we are now…where we can be.
It is a life of direction not of perfection…to continually close the gap throughout our lives.
This is an active process on God’s part and ours…so we have been looking at how do we exercise faith in God and love for others.
God is all for us becoming like Christ…it only remains for us to consistently be all for it as well.
This summer our sub-topic is: A season of conversational relationship with God.
Prayer is a discipline of the Christian life.
Prayer is a conversation with God, with increased relationship with God as its purpose.
For most people there are times when conversation within a key relationship is a choice, a decision. (even a burden?)
“I don’t feel like talking…I don’t want to discuss this.”
But the choice is made because we know that conversation is essential to staying current in the relationship…to communicate desires, issues, problems, emotions…etc…to connect, to understand.
In good relationships conversation is something we do whether we feel like doing it or not.
There are times when we are “feeling it” and it “flows”
Then there are times when we are not feeling it, but we know we still need it.
The goal of our prayer life and of becoming more disciplined in consistent communication with God is to know and love God more…growth in relationship and growth in becoming like him.
Today is the introduction for the summer…I urge you to not allow this summer to be a time of spiritual decrease but spiritual increase.
It doesn’t necessarily require more “time” or “extra” things on your schedule…it will require more intentionality about the time you actually have.
If you do engage God more actively this summer, I assure you that you will be glad that you did.
This morning we have two passages to set up our summer practicum together: (notice I didn’t say “summer study”)
Summer study implies mostly cognitive or mental exercise…practicum is practical application…practice.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. Mark 1:35-42
Here we see that Jesus’ practice of prayer and his life of spiritual power…are linked together.
Jesus engaged people…but he did so out of his engagement with his Father.
Jesus set the example…how can we possible presume to do less or other than he did?
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. Deut. 29:29
This passage is included today to address some of the mysteries of prayer
Let me give three points…To introduce our summer theme.
These points come from a single question: “Why pray?”
- Why Pray? Because God is in control
How can God being in control be the answer to the question…it seems like the question itself.?
If God is in control and is going to do whatever he knows is best, why pray?
You should pray because the scriptures say you should.
In fact, they say you should pray a lot…you should pray continually (1 Thess. 5:17).
And the fact that God is in control should be an encouragement to pray, not a discouragement from praying…we can ask in prayer because he told us to…we can trust his answers because he is good and he is in control.
If someone or something else was in control, we should be addressing our prayer and attention to them or it…to the president, or a general or a doctor or a boss or the universe.
But since God is in control and he has told us to pray, we are wise to direct our attention and our petitions to him.
He can answer our prayers because nothing can stand in his way.
So ponder the deep things of God all you want, but in the end do the simple things he has told you to do.
Pray at all times about all things.
This is what he has told us to do and the mystery of how it all works together is really not our concern.
This is why Deut. 29:29 is included in our introduction to a summer of conversational relationship with God.
Will you wait until you have figured God out before you experience God in your life?
If you do, you will wait indefinitely.
You don’t have to figure him out to experience him, but you do have to obey him to experience him.
Look again at Deut. 29…
A “secret thing” is how prayer and God’s sovereignty work together.
A “revealed thing” is that they do work together…and we are to obey what he has revealed.
Obey in the revealed things, trust in the secret things.
God is sovereign; all things are under his control and, at the same time, you are still told by God to pray.
The sovereign God has set things up in such a way that your act of praying matters in terms of outcomes.
Don’t spend much time trying to figure it out. It’s not a math problem; it’s a relational reality…pray.
- Why pray: Because Jesus prayed
From eternity past God the Father, Son, and Spirit have lived in loving relationship.
God is three persons in one being. This is not hard to understand; it is impossible to fully understand.
Within the uniqueness of who God is there has always been friendship, relationship, and love.
This fact helps us understand why Jesus prayed. His existence had always been one of intimate friendship.
Now as he dwelt among us as the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14), he continued to live in that friendship.
He got up early in the morning, at the beginning of his day, and left his new friends to spend time with his old friend.
You should pray because Jesus did.
But you should also pray because you understand why Jesus did.
He was in a friendship and so he prayed because he wanted to.
He liked to pray…because of love.
It may have been hard for him to get up early in the morning just like it can be for us, but he did it because he wanted to pray and not because he had to pray…that is the direction we want to head.
And this brings us to the final point for today.
- Why pray…Because you can
If God did not exist, you could speak words to the ceiling or to the sky, but it would not be prayer.
It would be self-talk.
If God existed but did not care, you could speak words to him but he would not listen.
If he did not listen, it would not be prayer. It would be “wish-talk.”
You should pray because you can pray.
You can pray because God exists and he cares for you.
Learn to see prayer as the privilege it is. You don’t have to pray, you get to pray.
This summer we want to grow in our conversational relationship with God…we want to close the gap on where we are now and where we can be in three months.
Then we want to leverage this summer into a lifetime of continued growth.
Sometimes prayer is easy, sometimes it is a hard.
For some people it is easier, for some people it is harder.
Prayer like a conversation in a close human relationship has as its goal…increased friendship, relationship.
Keep this in mind this summer…as we pursue a conversational relationship with God.
Let’s pray together.